Game writing: it ain't easy. It's confusing, it's messy, and often it's out of our hands. By that I mean the writer doesn't control the story; the player is in the driver's seat.
So why do we do it?
Wouldn't it be easier to write for film or TV, where we would have more control over the final product? After all, movie audiences can't mess with the story. But players sure can.
I asked my students this question just today - "if game writing is so hard, why do it?" Turns out they like the idea of writing for games. Some students talked about the appeal of world building; others focused on the immersion or the collaboration or the money (!). But my favorite answer was: "People can connect with games in ways that they don't with movies."
It's true. There are certain feelings which only game-based experiences seem to offer.
And as game writers, this knowledge is solid gold. It helps us understand what players are ALREADY feeling - and that's a rock we can build our stories on.
So what kinds of feelings are we talking about? Here are three of them.
The thrill we feel when we have the power to choose
We watch characters in film/TV/books struggle with decisions all the time. It's awesome and we love it. But the key word there is "watch." We may be invested in their decisions, we may agonize over their bonehead mistakes or celebrate their brilliant victories, but at the end of the day, it was their choice. Some people just break bad.
There is something about a decision being OUR choice. Even the smallest choice really matters. (Have you ever watched someone customize their character?) We love having options. It feels good. That feeling draws us in.
And while the game design gives us the power to choose, it's the narrative that can make those choices matter.
Here's an example. In Indigo Prophecy, you play as a detective. In this sequence, you are interviewing a witness to a crime. Watch the bar at the top of the screen.
They don't bother showing you the entire question, like you would see in a traditional dialog tree. Instead, they only show the topic - and they only give you a few seconds to decide what you want to ask. You have to time your choice just right, so that the bar stops under the subject you want the witness to discuss.
With this simple mechanic, the game creates the experience of being a detective - forced to choose our words, and hoping we asked the right questions, while we had a chance.
It's that feeling of agency that draws us into the story. The story doesn't move unless we do.
The delight we feel when we're free
Games can make us feel free. (We can't give the player true freedom, but we sure as hell can create the feeling of freedom. And as Jesse Schell says, all that's real is what you feel.) When it works, it's the best feeling in the world.
As game writers, we can use this feeling. We can create stories that are expansive and massive and epic. We can create a world that is rich and huge and extends off into the horizon. We can create characters and adventures and then invite the player to go out into the world and discover them.
This excellent Game Maker's Toolkit video takes a look at the open-world design that makes Breath of the Wild so special.
The concern we feel when we take responsibility
If you've ever worried about a princess, or felt guilty about a Nintendog, you know the feeling I'm talking about. These creatures aren't going to save themselves!
Players can learn to care about game characters - maybe because they're vulnerable, maybe because they helped us, maybe because we just like them. Once we care about characters, we start to care about what happens to them. That care and concern draws the player in - and then the adventure can begin.
Games are a lot of things - they're systems and mechanics and dynamics and code. But at the end of the day, games are about feelings. We play games because they're fun, and fun is a feeling.
Our job as game writers is to be able to name those feelings, understand them, and build stories around them.
The examples in today's post are small and simple. But they highlight something important: the POTENTIAL of playable stories. They're an arrow pointing us in the right direction.
Thanks for reading. See you next week.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.